At the celebrated ultimate oenophile event La Paulee held in New York city this February, there was one word that floated ubiquitously from wine stained lips – terroir. Guests sipped briefly and methodically, in a way similar to that of a honey bee extracting nectar before autumn destroys the bloom; attendees gathered around some of the world’s greatest vintages, riddling their impenetrable mystery with descriptors — long finish, blackberry, currents and pear, bouquets and legs, and so on. Yet there was one hot topic that never seemed to escape the purple tongues of those highly educated palates and minds, and that was terroir. “I’m so happy people are finally appreciating terroir in this country,” commented one wino at a small Burgundy Week tasting at a wine shop in the flatiron district. A crowd of people who overheard the comment simultaneously nodded in agreement, in an almost cult-like fashion. “Yes,” chimed in an evesdropper, “the Champagne growers have caught on, I’ve heard that artisan Champagnes by smaller producers are emphasizing their unique terroir…” Terroir, terroir, it’s all about the terroir. So what is terroir? Technically, the term terroir (pronounced tehr-wahr not terror) loosely translated refers to “a sense of place” in reference to the location, microclimate and soil unique to a wine’s agricultural region. The concept of terroir was created centuries ago by winemakers who observed differences (sometimes dramatic) in wines produced from identical grapes from different regions or sometimes at the same vineyard but at a different location. Terroir was the basis for the development of the French Appellation d’origine controllee (AOC) system, a classic and influential model whereby wines are classified according to their geography. Terroir is by no means a new concept; so why is it being embraced with such renewed interest and passion? Perhaps because it has been around so long it has transformed itself into a landmark as classic as art deco lamps adorning an old hotel, while such beauty cannot be denied, somehow it has rendered itself invisible. Until one day, a passerby notices the ornate design and directs our attention to it; we are jarred by the intricacy and beauty of the past. Or maybe it’s something far simpler– people need something to talk about. They’ve talked themselves out with the myriad of wine descriptors, conferences about vines, barrels, oak and steel, varieties of grapes, makers and hybrids, genetic modifications and new techniques. And yet, with all of the talk and technology, essentially it all comes down to that first sip from a virginal unopened bottle from one unique spot, that unique place, that terroir. Yes, there is something rustic yet erotic about terroir. Terroir — the place, the unique spot, the sun, earth, gravel and rain, that certain je ne’sais quois of a wine, like a lover’s chemistry– it either exists or it doesn’t. There is an indisputable aspect to a great wine, it’s an experience, atmospheric, transcending, takes you to a world of ecstasy. Think of the opening first stanza from Keat’s Ode to a Nightingale :
“My heart aches, and a drowsy numbness pains
My sense, as though of hemlock I had drunk…”
To those who may read this and be lost or even find it laughable, just know that there is a reason why people pay hundreds (sometimes thousands) of dollars to imbibe a single bottle of wine. To those who believe they know everything about pleasure but find a discussion on terroir and wines boring, you are clueless and I prey you remain that way (who needs more competition?). But for those of you who “get it” who understand the high, the extreme pleasure, of a deeply complex highly cultivated vintage replete with its rich terroir, I hope you understand that the concept of terroir goes far beyond mere geography– it is about rarity, a unique one-of-a-kind experience and that mystery called terroir.